A Flood of Newly Confirmed Exoplanets

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Artist renderings of exoplanets previously detected by the Kepler Space Telescope (NASA)
Artist renderings of exoplanets previously detected by the Kepler Space Telescope (NASA)

In the biggest haul ever of new exoplanets, scientists with NASA’s Kepler mission announced the confirmation of 1,284 additional planets outside our solar system — including nine that are relatively small and within the habitable zones of their host stars.  That almost doubles the number of these treasured rocky planets that orbit their stars at distances that could potentially support liquid water and potentially life.

Prior to today’s announcement, scientists using Kepler and all other exoplanet detection approaches had confirmed some 2,100 planets in 1,300 planetary systems.  So this is a major addition to the exoplanets known to exist and that are now available for further study by scientists.

These detections comes via the Kepler Space Telescope, which collected data on tiny decreases in the output of light from distant stars during its observing period between 2009 and 2013.  Those dips in light were determined by the Kepler team to be planets crossing in front of the stars rather than impostors to a 99 percent-plus probability.

As Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters put it,  “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth.”

he histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for more than the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous non-Kepler planet discoveries, the light blue bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the orange bar displays the 1,284 new validated planets. (NASA Ames/W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton)
The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for more than the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous non-Kepler planet discoveries, the light blue bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the orange bar displays the 1,284 new validated planets.
(NASA Ames/W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton)

The primary goals of the Kepler mission are to determine the demographics of exoplanets in the galaxy, and more specifically to determine the population of small, rocky planets (less than 1.6 times the size of Earth) in the habitable zones of their stars.  While orbiting in such a zone by no means assures that life is, or was, ever present, it is considered to be one of the most important criteria.

The final Kepler accounting of how likely it is for a star to host such an exoplanet in its habitable zone won’t come out until next year.  But by all estimations, Kepler has already jump-started the process and given a pretty clear sense of just how ubiquitous exoplanets, and even potentially habitable exoplanets, appear to be.

“They say not to count our chickens before they’re hatched, but that’s exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet),” said Natalie Batalha, co-author of the paper in the Astrophysical Journal and the Kepler mission scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

“This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets — a number that’s needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds.”

Batalha said that based on observations and statistics the Kepler mission has produced so far, we can expect that there are some 10 billion relatively small, rocky  (and potentially habitable) planets in our galaxy.  And with those numbers in mind, she said, the closest is likely to be in the range of 11 light years away.

She said that all of the exoplanets found in habitable zones are in the “exoplanet Hall of Fame.”  But she said two of the newly announced planets in habitable zones, Kepler 1286b and Kepler 1628b, joined two previous exoplanets of particular interest either because of their size (close to that of Earth) or their Earth-like distance from suns rather like ours.

Batalha said a new and finely-tuned software pipeline has been developed to better analyze the data collected during those four years of Kepler observations.  Asked if the final Kepler catalogue of exoplanets, expected to be finished next summer, would increase the current totals of exoplanets found, she replied:  “It wouldn’t surprise me if we had hundreds more to add.”

Since Kepler launched in 2009, 21 planets less than twice the size of Earth have been discovered in the habitable zones of their stars. The orange spheres represent the nine newly validated planets announcement on May 10, 2016. The blue disks represent the 12 previous known planets. These planets are plotted relative to the temperature of their star and with respect to the amount of energy received from their star in their orbit in Earth units. (NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel)
Since Kepler launched in 2009, 21 planets less than twice the size of Earth have been discovered in the habitable zones of their stars. The orange spheres represent the nine newly validated planets announcement on May 10, 2016. The blue disks represent the 12 previous known planets. These planets are plotted relative to the temperature of their star and with respect to the amount of energy received from their star in their orbit in Earth units. (NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel)

Once the Kepler exoplanet list is updated, scientists around the world will begin to study some of the most surprising, enticing, and significant finds.  Kepler can tell scientists only the location of a planet, its mass and its distance from the host star.  So the job of further characterizing the planets — and ultimately determining if any are indeed potentially habitable — requires other telescopes and techniques.

Nonetheless, Kepler’s ability to give scientists a broad picture of the distribution of exoplanets — to find large numbers of them rather than, as pre-Kepler, one or two at a time — has been revolutionary.  It has also been remarkably speedy, thanks in large part to an automated system of analyzing transit data devised by Tim Morton, a research scientist at Princeton University,

“Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs,” Morton said in a NASA teleconference. “If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you’re going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom.”

Kepler identified another 1,327 candidates that are very likely to be exoplanets, but didn’t meet the 99 percent certainty level required to be deemed an exoplanet.

A large percentage of the newly confirmed planets are either “super-Earths” or “sub-Neptunes” — planets in a size range absent in our solar system.  Initially, the widespread presence of exoplanets of these dimensions was a puzzle to the exoplanet community,  but now the puzzle is more why they are absent in our system.

Despite the abundance of these exoplanets — which are believed to be mostly gas or ice giants — scientists are convinced there are considerably more rocky, even Earth-sized planets that current telescopes can’t detect.

 The size distribution of discovered exoplanet has been a surprise to scientists. The blue bars on the histogram represent all previously verified exoplanets by size. The orange bars on the histogram represent Kepler's 1,284 newly validated planets. (NASA Ames/W. Stenzel)
The size distribution of discovered exoplanet has been a surprise to scientists. The blue bars on the histogram represent all previously verified exoplanets by size. The orange bars on the histogram represent Kepler’s 1,284 newly validated planets. (NASA Ames/W. Stenzel)

 

The primary Kepler mission focused on one small piece of the sky — about 0.25 percent of it — and a distant part at that. It watched nonstop for transiting planets in that space for four years, watching unblinkingly at some 150.000 stars. The result has been a treasure trove of data that can then be broadened statistically to tell us about the entire galaxy.

So Kepler has revolutionized our understanding of the galaxy and what’s in it, and has proven once and for all that exoplanets are common.  But the individual planets that it has detected are unlikely to be the ones that allow for breakthroughs in terms of sniffing out what chemicals are in their atmospheres — an essential process for determining if a potentially habitable planet actually has some of the ingredients for life.

This is because Kepler was looking far into the cosmos, between 600 and 3,000 light years from our sun.  While the telescope identified almost 5,000 “candidate planets” during its four years of primary operation — and now more than 2,200 confirmed planets — the planets are generally considered too distant for the more precise follow-up observing needed to understand their atmospheres and chemical make-ups.

This work will fall to ground-based telescopes looking at nearer stars, and to future generations of American and European space telescopes using the transit method of detection pioneered by Kepler. (See graphic above.)  The next space satellite in line is NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite  (TESS), which is scheduled to launch in 2017 and will focus on planets orbiting much closer and brighter stars.  The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2018, also has the potential to study exoplanets with a precision, and in wavelengths, not available before.

NASA has begun development of the more sophisticated Wide Field Infrared Survey Satellite (WFIRST) to further exoplanet research in the 2020s,  and has set up formal science and technology definition teams to plan for a possible flagship exoplanet mission for the 2030s.  That mission would potentially have the power and techniques to determine whether an exoplanet actually has the components, or the presence, of life.

 

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How Will We Know What Exoplanets Look Like, and When?

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An earlier version of this article was accidently published last week before it was completed.  This is the finished version, with information from this week’s AAS annual conference.

This image of a pair of interacting galaxies called Arp 273 was released to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the launch of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The distorted shape of the larger of the two galaxies shows signs of tidal interactions with the smaller of the two. It is thought that the smaller galaxy has actually passed through the larger one.
This image of a pair of interacting galaxies called Arp 273 was released to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the launch of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The distorted shape of the larger of the two galaxies shows signs of tidal interactions with the smaller of the two. It is thought that the smaller galaxy has actually passed through the larger one.

Let’s face it:  the field of exoplanets has a significant deficit when it comes to producing drop-dead beautiful pictures.

We all know why.  Exoplanets are just too small to directly image, other than as a miniscule fraction of a pixel, or perhaps some day as a full pixel.  That leaves it up to artists, modelers and the travel poster-makers of the Jet Propulsion Lab to help the public to visualize what exoplanets might be like.  Given the dramatic successes of the Hubble Space Telescope in imaging distant galaxies, and of telescopes like those on the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, this is no small competitive disadvantage.  And this explains why the first picture of this column has nothing to do with exoplanets (though billions of them are no doubt hidden in the image somewhere.)

The problem is all too apparent in these two images of Pluto — one taken by the Hubble and the other by New Horizons telescope as the satellite zipped by.

image

Pluto image taken by Hubble Space Telescope (above) and close up taken by New Horizons in 2015. (NASA)
Pluto image taken by Hubble Space Telescope (above) and close up taken by New Horizons in 2015. (NASA)

Pluto is about 4.7 billion miles away.  The nearest star, and as a result the nearest possible planet, is 25 trillion miles  away.  Putting aside for a minute the very difficult problem of blocking out the overwhelming luminosity of a star being cross by the orbiting planet you want to image,  you still have an enormous challenge in terms of resolving an image from that far away.

While current detection methods have been successful in confirming more than 2,000 exoplanets in the past 20 years (with another 2,000-plus candidates awaiting confirmation or rejection),  they have been extremely limited in terms of actually producing images of those planetary fireflies in very distant headlights.  And absent direct images — or more precisely, light from those planets — the amount of information gleaned about the chemical makeup of their atmospheres  as been limited, too.

But despite the enormous difficulties, astronomers and astrophysicist are making some progress in their quest to do what was considered impossible not that long ago, and directly image exoplanets.

In fact, that direct imaging — capturing light coming directly from the sources — is pretty uniformly embraced as the essential key to understanding the compositions and dynamics of exoplanets.  That direct light may not produce a picture of even a very fuzzy exoplanet for a very long time to come, but it will definitely provide spectra that scientists can read to learn what molecules are present in the atmospheres, what might be on the surfaces and as a result if there might be signs of life.

This diagram illustrates how astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope can capture the elusive spectra of hot-Jupiter planets. Spectra are an object's light spread apart into its basic components, or wavelengths. By dissecting light in this way, scientists can sort through it and uncover clues about the composition of the object giving off the light. To obtain a spectrum for an object, one first needs to capture its light. Hot-Jupiter planets are so close to their stars that even the most powerful telescopes can't distinguish their light from the light of their much brighter stars. But, there are a few planetary systems that allow astronomers to measure the light from just the planet by using a clever technique. Such "transiting" systems are oriented in such a way that, from our vantage point, the planets' orbits are seen edge-on and cross directly in front of and behind their stars. In this technique, known as the secondary eclipse method, changes in the total infrared light from a star system are measured as its planet transits behind the star, vanishing from our Earthly point of view. The dip in observed light can then be attributed to the planet alone. To capture a spectrum of the planet, Spitzer must observe the system twice. It takes a spectrum of the star together with the planet (first panel), then, as the planet disappears from view, a spectrum of just the star (second panel). By subtracting the star's spectrum from the combined spectrum of the star plus the planet, it is able to get the spectrum for just the planet (third panel). This ground-breaking technique was used by Spitzer to obtain the first-ever spectra of two planets beyond our solar system, HD 209458b and HD 189733b. The results suggest that the hot planets are socked in with dry clouds high up in the planet's stratospheres. In addition, HD 209458b showed hints of silicates, indicating those high clouds might be made of very fine sand-like particles.
This diagram illustrates how astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope can capture the elusive spectra of hot-Jupiter planets. Spectra are an object’s light spread apart into its basic components, or wavelengths. By dissecting light in this way, scientists can sort through it and uncover clues about the composition of the object giving off the light. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

There has been lots of technical and scientific debate about how to capture that light, as well as debate about how to convince Congress and NASA to fund the search.  What’s more, the exoplanet community has a history of fractious internal debate and competition that has at times undermined its goals and efforts, and that has been another hotly discussed subject.  (The image of a circular firing squad used to be a pretty common one for the community.)

But a seemingly much more orderly strategy has been developed in recently years and was on display at the just-completed American Astronomical Society annual meeting in Florida.  The most significant breaking news was probably that NASA has gotten additional funds to support a major exoplanet direct imaging mission in the 2020s, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and that the agency is moving ahead with a competition between four even bigger exoplanet or astrophysical missions for the 2030s. The director of NASA Astrophysics, Paul Hertz, made the formal announcements during the conference, when he called for the formation of four Science and Technology Definition Teams to assess in great detail the potentials and plausibilities of the four possibilities.

Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Putting it into a broader perspective, astronomer Natalie Batalha, science lead for the Kepler Space Telescope, told a conference session on next-generation direct imaging that  “with modern technology, we don’t have the capability to image a solar system analog.”  But, she said, “that’s where we want to go.”

And the road to discovering exoplanets that might actually sustain life may well require a space-based telescope in the range of eight to twelve meters in radius, she and others are convinced.  Considering that a very big challenge faced by the engineers of the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled to launch in 2018) was how to send a 6.5 meter-wide mirror into space, the challenges (and the costs) for a substantially larger space telescope will be enormous.

We will come back in following post to some of these plans for exoplanet missions in the decades ahead, but first let’s look at a sample of the related work done in recent years and what might become possible before the 2020s.  And since direct imaging is all about “seeing” a planet — rather than inferring its existence through dips in starlight when an exoplanet transits, or the wobble of a sun caused by the presence of  an orbiting ball of rock (or gas)  — showing some of the images produced so far seems appropriate.  They may not be breath-taking aesthetically, but they are remarkable.

There is some debate and controversy over which planets were the first to be directly imaged. But all agree that a major breakthrough came in 2008 with the imaging of the HR8799 system via ground-based observations.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory - http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/exoplanet20100414-a.html This image shows the light from three planets orbiting a star 120 light-years away. The planets' star, called HR8799, is located at the spot marked with an "X." This picture was taken using a small, 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) portion of the Palomar Observatory's Hale Telescope, north of San Diego, Calif. This is the first time a picture of planets beyond our solar system has been captured using a telescope with a modest-sized mirror -- previous images were taken using larger telescopes. The three planets, called HR8799b, c and d, are thought to be gas giants like Jupiter, but more massive. They orbit their host star at roughly 24, 38 and 68 times the distance between our Earth and sun, respectively (Jupiter resides at about 5 times the Earth-sun distance).
This 2010 image shows the light from three planets orbiting HR8799, 120 light-years away.  The three planets, called HR8799b, c and d, are thought to be gas giants like Jupiter, but more massive. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory)

First, three Jupiter-plus gas giants were identified using the powerful Keck and Gemini North infrared telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii by a team led by Christian Marois of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. That detection was followed several years later the discovery of a fourth planet and then by the release of the surprising image above, produced with the quite small (4.9 foot) Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory outside of San Diego.

As is the case for all planets directly imaged, the “pictures” were not taken as we would with our own cameras, but rather represent images produced with information that is crunched in a variety of necessary technical ways before their release.  Nonetheless, they are images in a way similar the iconic Hubble images that also need a number of translating steps to come alive.

Because light from the host star has to be blocked out for direct imaging to work, the technique now identifies only planets with very long orbits. In the case of HR8799, the planets orbit respectively at roughly 24, 38 and 68 times the distance between our Earth and sun.  Jupiter orbits at about 5 times the Earth-sun distance.

In the same month as the HR8799 announcement, another milestone was made public with the detection of a planet orbiting the star Formalhaut.  That, too, was done via direct imagining, this time with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble images were taken with the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph in 2010 and 2012. This false-color composite image, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals the orbital motion of the planet Fomalhaut b. Based on these observations, astronomers calculated that the planet is in a 2,000-year-long, highly elliptical orbit. The planet will appear to cross a vast belt of debris around the star roughly 20 years from now. If the planet's orbit lies in the same plane with the belt, icy and rocky debris in the belt could crash into the planet's atmosphere and produce various phenomena. The black circle at the center of the image blocks out the light from the bright star, allowing reflected light from the belt and planet to be photographed. Credit: NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute)
The Hubble images the the star Formalhaut and planet Formalhaut b were taken with the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph in 2010 and 2012. This false-color composite image reveals the orbital motion of the Fomalhaut b. Based on these observations, astronomers calculated that the planet is in a 2,000-year-long, highly elliptical orbit. The black circle at the center of the image blocks out light from the very bright star, allowed reflected light from the belt and planet to be captured.  Credit: NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute)

Signs of the planet were first detected in 2004 and 2006 by a group headed by Paul Kalas at the University of California, Berkeley, and they made the announcement in 2008.  The discovery was confirmed several years later and tantalizing planetary dynamics began to emerge from the images (all in false color.) For instance, the planet appears to be on a path to cross a vast belt of debris around the star roughly 20 years from now.  If the planet’s orbit lies in the same plane with the belt, icy and rocky debris could crash into the planet’s atmosphere and cause interesting damage.

The region around Fomalhaut’s location is black because astronomers used a coronagraph to block out the star’s bright glare so that the dim planet could be seen. This is essential since Fomalhaut b is 1 billion times fainter than its star. The radial streaks are scattered starlight. Like all the planets detected so far using some form of direct imaging,  Fomalhaut b if far from its host star and completes an orbit every 872 years.

Adaptive optics of the Gemini Planet Imager, at the Gemini South Observatory in Chile, has been successful in imaging exoplanets as well.  The GPI grew out of a proposal by the Center for Adaptive Optics, now run by the University of California system, to inspire and see developed innovative optical technology.  Some of the same breakthroughs now used in treating human eyes found their place in exoplanet astronomy.

 

Discovery image of 51 Eri b with the Gemini Planet Imager taken in the near-infrared light on December 18, 2014. The bright central star has been mostly removed by a hardware and software mask to enable the detection of the exoplanet one million times fainter. Credits: J. Rameau (UdeM) and C. Marois (NRC Herzberg).
Discovery image of 51 Eri b with the Gemini Planet Imager taken in the near-infrared light on December 18, 2014. The bright central star has been mostly removed by a hardware and software mask to enable the detection of the exoplanet one million times fainter. Credits: J. Rameau (UdeM) and C. Marois (NRC Herzberg).

The Imager, which began operation in 2014, was specifically created to discern and evaluate dim, newer planets orbiting bright stars using a different kind of direct imaging. It is adept at detecting young planets, for instance, because they still retain heat from their formation, remain luminous and visible. Using the GPI to study the area around the y0ung (20-million-year-old) star 51 Eridiani, the team made their first exoplanet discovery in 2014.

By studying its thermal emissions, the team gained insights into the planet’s atmospheric composition and found that — much like Jupiter’s — it is dominated by methane.  To date, methane signatures have been weak or absent in directly imaged exoplanets.

James Graham, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, is the project leader for a three-year GPI survey of 600 stars to find young gas giant planets, Jupiter-size and above.

“The key motivation for the experiment is that if you can detect heat from the planet, if you can directly image it, then by using basic science you can learn about formation processes for these planets.”  So by imaging the planets using these very sophisticated optical advances, scientists go well beyond detecting exoplanets to potentially unraveling deep mysteries (even if we still won’t know what the planets “look like” from an image-of-the-day perspective.

The GPI has also detected a second exoplanet, shown here at different stages of its orbit:

 

The animation is a series of images taken between November 2013 and April 2015 with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, and shows the exoplanet β Pictoris b, which is more than 60 lightyears from Earth. The star is the black area on the left edge of the frame and is hidden by the Gemini Planet Imager’s coronagraph. We are looking at the planet’s orbit almost edge-on, with the planet closer to the Earth than the star. (M. Millar-Blanchaer, University of Toronto; F. Marchis, SETI Institute)
The animation is a series of images taken between November 2013 and April 2015 with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, and shows the exoplanet β Pictoris b, which is more than 60 lightyears from Earth. The star is the black area on the left edge of the frame and is hidden by the Gemini Planet Imager’s coronagraph. (M. Millar-Blanchaer, University of Toronto; F. Marchis, SETI Institute)

A next big step in direct imaging of exoplanets will come with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.  While not initially designed to study exoplanets — in fact, exoplanets were just first getting discovered when the telescope was under early development — it does now include a coronagraph which will substantially increase its usefulness in imaging exoplanets.

As explained by Joel Green, a project scientist for the Webb at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the new observatory will be able to capture light — in the form of infrared radiation– that will be coming from more distant and much colder environments than what Hubble can probe.

“It’s sensitive to dimmer things, smaller planets that are more earth-sized.  And because it can see fainter objects, it will be more help in understanding the demographics of exoplanets.  It uses the infrared region of the spectrum, and so it can look better into the cloud levels of the planets than any telescope so far and see deeper.”

James Webb Space Telescope mirror being inspected at Goddard Space Flight Center, as it nears completion.  The powerful, sophisticated and long-awaited telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018.
James Webb Space Telescope mirror being inspected at Goddard Space Flight Center, as it nears completion. The powerful, sophisticated and long-awaited telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018.

These capabilities and more are going to be a boon to exoplanet researchers and will no doubt advance the direct imaging effort and potentially change basic understandings about exoplanets.  But it is not expected produce gorgeous or bizarre exoplanet pictures for the public, as Hubble did for galaxies and nebulae.  Indeed, unlike the Hubble — which sees primarily in visible light —  Webb sees in what Green said is, in effect, night vision.   And so researchers are still working on how they will produce credible images using the information from Webb’s infrared cameras and translating them via a color scheme into pictures for scientists and the public.

Another compelling exoplanet-imaging technology under study by NASA is the starshade, or external occulter, a metal disk in the shape of a sunflower that might some day be used to block out light from host stars in order to get a look at faraway orbiting planets.  MIT’s Sara Seager led a NASA study team that reported back on the starshade last year in a report that concluded it was technologically possible to build and launch, and would be scientifically most useful.  If approved, the starshade — potentially 100 feet across — could be used with the WFIRST telescope in the 2020s.  The two components would fly far separately, as much as 35,000 miles away from each other, and together could produce breakthrough exoplanet direct images.

An artist's depiction of a sunflower-shaped starshade that could help space telescopes find and characterize alien planets. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltec
An artist’s depiction of a sunflower-shaped starshade that could help space telescopes find and characterize alien planets.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Here is a link to an animation of the starshade being deployed: http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/video/15

The answer, then, to the question posed in the title to this post — “How Will We Know What Exoplanets Look Like, and When?”– is complex, evolving and involves a science-based definition of what “looking like” means.  It would be wonderful to have images of exoplanets that show cloud formations, dust and maybe some surface features, but “direct imaging” is really about something different.  It’s about getting light from exoplanets that can tell scientists about the make-up of those exoplanets and their atmospheres, and ultimately that’s a lot more significant than any stunning or eerie picture.

And with that difference between beauty and science in mind, this last image is one of the more striking ones I’ve seen in some time.

Moon glow over Las Campanas Observatory, run by the Carnegie Institution of Science, in Chile. (Yuri Beretsky)
Moon glow over Las Campanas Observatory, operated by the Carnegie Institution of Science, in Chile. (Yuri Beretsky)

It was taken at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile last year, during a night of stargazing.  Although the observatory is in the Atacama Desert, enough moisture was present in the atmosphere to create this lovely moon-glow.

But working in the observatory that night was Carnegie’s pioneer planet hunter Paul Butler, who uses the radial velocity method to detect exoplanets.  But to do that he needs to capture light from those distant systems.  So the night — despite the beautiful moon-glow — was scientifically useless.

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On Super-Earths, Sub-Neptunes and Some Lessons They Teach

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Part 1 of 2

The discovery of a menagerie of exoplanets sized greater than Earth and smaller than Neptune has changed thinking about planets and solar systems. The radius of Neptune is almost 4 times greater than Earth’s, and the planet’s mass is 17 times greater than our planet. (NASA)
The discovery of a menagerie of exoplanets sized greater than Earth and smaller than Neptune has changed thinking about planets and solar systems. The radius of Neptune is almost 4 times greater than Earth’s, and the planet’s mass is 17 times greater than our planet. (NASA)

When the first exoplanet was identified and confirmed 20 years ago, there was enormous excitement, a sense of historic breakthrough and, with almost parallel intensity, sheer bewilderment. The planet, 51 Pegasi B, was larger than Jupiter yet orbited its parent star in 4 days. In other words, it was much closer to its star than Mercury is to ours and so was extremely hot.

According to theories of the time about planetary formation and solar system organization, a hot Jupiter so close to its sun was impossible. That kind of close-in orbit is where small rocky planets might be found, not Jupiters that belonged much further out and were presumed to always be cold.

That was a soberingly appropriate introduction to the new era of exoplanets, and set the stage for 20 years of surprises and re-evaluations of long held theories and understandings.

While the presence of close-in hot Jupiters certainly remains one of the great puzzles of the exo-planet era, the most consequential exoplanetary revelation has likely been the discovery of many planets larger than Earth and smaller than the next largest planet in our solar system — icy, gaseous Neptune.

These “super-Earths’ and “sub-Neptunes” range greatly in size since Neptune has a radius four times greater than our planet. What’s so surprising about the presence of this class of planets is that they are not just common, they are by far the most frequently detected exoplanets to date.

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Kepler exoplanets candidates, both confirmed and unconfirmed, orbiting G, K, and M type main sequence stars, by radii and fraction of the total. (Natalie Batalha and Wendy Stenzel, NASA Ames)

Perhaps most intriguing of all, however, is their absence in our planetary line-up.

It has long been predicted that the planetary make-up of our solar system would be typical of others, but now we know that is (again) wrong. As Mark Marley, a staff scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who studies exoplanets put it, the widespread presence of “super-Earths” elsewhere and their absence in our system “is telling us something quite important.” The work to tease out what that might be has just begun, and will likely keep scientists busy for some time.

“It certainly seems that the universe wants to makes these planets,” Marley told me. “And they’re surprising not only because nobody predicted their vast number but also because they have been intractable – very, very difficult to characterize. It seems like they want to keep their secrets close to the vest.”

How are these planets keeping their secrets – the ingredients of their atmospheres, in particular – from researchers?   Because many seem to be surrounded by thick clouds and layers of sooty smog, like Los Angeles on a very bad day. As a result, the spectroscopy normally used to read exoplanet atmospheres and determine what elements and compounds are present is of little use. The instruments can’t see through the thick film

This helps explain why many astronomers and planetary scientists don’t like the term “super-Earths.” The word implies that they are sized-up Earths, but there’s every reason to believe that very few fit into that category. Nonetheless, the name is so compelling that, for now at least, it seems to have stuck – with that addition of “sub-Neptunes.”

This artist's illustration represents the variety of planets being detected by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. A new analysis has determined the frequencies of planets of all sizes, from Earths up to gas giants. (C. Pulliam & D. Aguilar, CfA)
This artist’s illustration represents the variety of planets being detected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. A new analysis has determined the frequencies of planets of all sizes, from Earths up to gas giants. (C. Pulliam & D. Aguilar, CfA)

Despite the difficulties in characterizing these planets, some progress is being made. Researchers Leslie Rogers of Caltech and Lauren Weiss at Berkeley have separately, for instance, determined which super-Earths and mini-Neptunes are likely to be rocky like Earth and which are likely to be gaseous and icy like Neptune.  The cut-off is by no means precise or across-the-board, but it appears that once a planet has a radius more than 1.5 or 1.6 times the size of Earth, it will most likely have a thick gas envelope of hydrogen, helium and sometimes methane and ammonia around it.

Weiss, a Ken & Gloria Levy Graduate Student Fellow, described some other super-Earth/sub-Neptune characteristics that she and others have found. These exoplanets, for instance, very often have nearby companions in the same class. Many of these larger ones (above 1.5 Earth radii) also tend to be fluffy; quite big but not particularly dense. Weiss likens the least dense super-Earths to macarons – a light, French meringue-based confection (that is definitely not a macaroon.)

They may well have cores of iron and some inner rockiness, but they are so light that they have to consist in large part of hydrogen, helium, water and other gases. It is common to find super-Earths and even sub-Neptunes that have much larger diameters than Earth, but have less mass than Earth.

While some of the super-Earths and sub-Neptunes were, and still are being detected using ground-based radial velocity and other techniques, most were found by Kepler.  That means the field is very young because that early data came out only a few years ago.  But it represents such an important and compelling paradigm shift in astronomy and planetary science that a large and growing contingent of researchers has quickly assembled to search for and study these properly high-profile planets – their orbits, their planetary neighbors, their masses, and now to some extent the make-up of their atmospheres and cores. Some of the work involves observation, some theory and some modeling.

As Mark Marley pointed out, these planets are not giving up their secrets easily. And inevitably, given the great interest and limited data, conclusions and findings will be published that appear strong at the time, but are quickly eclipsed by new information.

Take, for instance, the announced interpretation in 2009, 2012 and 2013 of a sub-Neptune size “water world.” While the papers that introduced the possibility of a very wet exoplanet Gliese 1214b contained caveats, the news stories that went around the world reported that the first water world had apparently been discovered. Exciting news, for sure.

The planet Gliese 1214b was initially described as a possible "water world," and the idea caught the public imagination. But subsequent examination, and the characterizing of other super-Earths and sub-Neptunes, has led to a different conclusion: that the planet is most likely covered by a hydrogen/helium envelope and a thick film of sooty dust. (Artist rendering by L. Calçada, European Space Observatory.)
The planet Gliese 1214b was initially described as a possible “water world,” and the idea caught the public imagination. But subsequent examination, and the characterizing of other super-Earths and sub-Neptunes, has led to a different conclusion: that the planet is most likely covered by a hydrogen/helium envelope and a thick film of sooty dust. (Artist rendering by L. Calçada, European Space Observatory.)

But several years later, it is clear that the water world story was premature. The presence of water had never been confirmed for Gleise 1214b, but rather had been inferred by other limited measurements involving mass, radius, and the absence of spectral data, which were together interpreted to mean the possible, or even probable, presence of a steamy, wet atmosphere.

It still may be the case that the planet has abundant water. But follow-up investigation using the Hubble Space Telescope showed conclusively that the planet was covered in clouds of unknown make-up and origin, and that the presence of massive amounts of water could not be properly inferred from the data at hand.

Zachory Berta-Thompson of MIT was one of the key participants in the Gliese 1214b papers, and he agrees that the evidence today does not point to a water world.  “There was a very deep investigation of the GJ 1214b atmosphere with the Hubble, and if water was there it would have been detected,” he said.  (The lead author of that paper was Laura Kreidberg of the University of Chicago.)

“We used the data we had when the planet was discovered, and made calculations and inferences that made sense at the time,” Berta-Thompson said.  “But the field moves quickly and with the discovery of many other sub-Neptunes, we would draw other conclusions.”  Gliese 1214b, he said, is most likely a puffy planet (with an envelope of hydrogen and helium) rather than a water world.

This is not, it should be noted, a knock on the initial paper. If anything, it’s a knock on journalists (of which I have long been one) who highlighted the water world story. But primarily, the Gliese 1214b research is one of numerous examples of the exciting new science of super-Earths and sub-Neptunes playing out at very high speed, with inevitable potholes on a bumpy and terribly hard-to-navigate road.

 

Many Worlds will continue this discussion of super-Earths and sub-Neptunes on Friday, with an emphasis on thinking about whether they might be conducive or anathema to life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Counting Our Countless Worlds

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The Milky Way has several hundred billion stars, and many scientists are now convinced it has even more planets and moons. (NASA)
The Milky Way is home to several hundred billion stars, and many scientists are now convinced it has even more planets and moons. (NASA)

Imagine counting all the people who have ever lived on Earth, well over 100 billion of them.

Then imagine counting all the planets now orbiting stars in our Milky Way galaxy , and in particular the ones that are roughly speaking Earth-sized. Not so big that the planet turns into a gas giant, and not so small that it has trouble holding onto an atmosphere.

In the wake of the explosion of discoveries about distant planets and their suns in the last two decades, we can fairly conclude that one number is substantially larger than the other.

Yes, there are many, many billions more planets in our one galaxy than people who have set foot on Earth in all human history. And yes, there are expected to be more planets in distant habitable zones as there are people alive today, a number upwards of 7 billion.

This is for sure a comparison of apples and oranges. But it not only gives a sense of just how commonplace planets are in our galaxy (and no doubt beyond), but also that the population of potentially habitable planets is enormous, too.   “Many Worlds,” indeed.

The populations of exoplanets identified so far, plotted according to the radius of the planet and how many days it takes to orbit. The circles in yellow represent planets found by Kepler, light blue by using ground-based radial velocity, and pink for transiting planets not found by Kepler, and green, purple and red other ground-based methods. (NASA Ames Research Center)
The populations of exoplanets identified so far, plotted according to the radius of the planet and how many days it takes to orbit. The circles in yellow represent planets found by Kepler, light blue by using ground-based radial velocity, and pink for transiting planets not found by Kepler, and green, purple and red other ground-based methods. (NASA Ames Research Center)

It was Ruslan Belikov, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley who provided this sense of scale.  The numbers are of great importance to him because he (and others) will be making recommendations about future NASA exoplanet-finding and characterization missions based on the most precise population numbers that NASA and the exoplanet community can provide.

Natalie Batalha, Mission Scientist for the Kepler Space Telescope mission and the person responsible for assessing the planet population out there, sliced it another way. When I asked her if her team and others now expect each star to have a planet orbiting it, she replied: “At least one.”

Kepler-186f was the first rocky planet to be found within the habitable zone -- the region around the host star where the temperature is right for liquid water. This planet is also very close in size to Earth. (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)
Kepler-186f was the first rocky planet to be found within the habitable zone — the region around the host star where the temperature is right for liquid water. This planet is also very close in size to Earth. (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

I caught up with Belikov, Batalha and several dozen others intimately involved in cataloguing the vast menagerie of exoplanets at a “Hack Event” earlier this month at Ames. The goal of the three-day gathering was to find ways to improve the already high level of reliability and completeness regarding planets identified by Kepler.

It also provided an opportunity to learn more about how, exactly, these scientists can be so confident about the very large numbers of exoplanets and habitable zone exoplanets they describe. After all, the total number of confirmed exoplanets is a bit under 2,000 – a majority found by Kepler but hundreds of others by pioneering astronomers using ground-based telescopes and very different techniques. Kepler has another 3,000 planet candidates that scientists are in the process of analyzing and most likely confirming, but still. Four thousand is minuscule compared with two hundred billion.

Not everyone completely agrees that we’re ready to estimate such large numbers of exoplanets—suggesting that we need more data before making such important estimates — but the community consensus is that their extrapolations from current data are solid and scientific. And here is why:

The Kepler telescope looks out at a very small portion of the sky with a limited number of stars – about 190,000 of them during its four year survey. And it identifies planets based on the tiny dimming of stars when an object (almost always a planet) crosses between the star and the telescope.

The Kepler telescope looked constantly for four years at almost 200,000 stars in the Cygnus constellation. (Carter Roberts)
The Kepler telescope looked constantly for four years at almost 200,000 stars in the Cygnus & Lyra constellations.  Its lens is always open, by design. (Carter Roberts)

By identifying those 4,000-plus confirmed and candidate planets over four years, Kepler infers the existence of many, many more. As Batalha explained, a transit of the planet is only observable when the orbit is aligned with the telescope, and the probability of that alignment is very small. Kepler scientists refer to this as a “bias” in their observations, and it is one that can be quantified. For example, the probability that an Earth-Sun twin will be aligned in a transiting geometry is just 0.5%. For every one that Kepler detects, there are 200 others that didn’t transit simply because of the orientation of their orbits.

Then there’s the question of faintness and reliability. Kepler is looking out at stars hundreds, sometimes thousands of light years away.  The more distant a star, the fainter it is and the more difficult it is to gather measurements of –and especially dips in — brightness. When it comes to potentially habitable, Earth-sized planets, Batalha said that only 10,000 to 15,000 of the stars observed are bright enough for planets to be detectable even if they do transit the disk of their host star.

Here’s why: Detecting an Earth-sized planet would be roughly equivalent to capturing the image of a gnat as it crosses a car headlight shining one mile away. For a Jupiter-size planet, the bug would grow to only the size of a large beetle.

Add this bias to the earlier one, and you can see how the numbers swell so quickly. And since Kepler’s mission has been to provide a survey of planets in one small region – and not a census – this kind of statistical extrapolation is precisely what the mission is supposed to do.

There are numerous other detecting challenges posed by the dynamics of exoplanets, stars and the great distances. But then there are also innumerable challenges associated with the workings of the 95 megapixel CCD array that is collecting light for Kepler.   “Sensitivity dropouts” caused by those cosmic rays, horizontal “rolling bands” on the CCDs caused by temperature changes in the electronics, “optical ghosts” from binary stars that create false signals of transits on nearby stars — they are some of the many instrument artifacts that can be mistaken as a drop in light coming from a planet. Kepler’s data processing pipeline, much of which has been transferred over to the NASA Ames supercomputer, has the job of sorting all this out.

 

After the CCDs on the Kepler telescope record the light from stars in its viewing field, the data is sent back to Earth and goes through numerous steps before possibly delivering a “Kepler object of interest,” and possibly a planet candidate. Pleiades is the Ames supercomputer. (NASA Ames)
After the CCDs on the Kepler telescope record the light from stars in its viewing field, the data is sent back to Earth and goes through numerous steps before possibly delivering a “Kepler object of interest,” and possibly a planet candidate. Pleiades is the Ames supercomputer. (NASA Ames)

Adding to the challenge, said Jon Jenkins, a Kepler co-investigator at Ames and the science lead for the pipeline development, is that the stars viewed by Kepler turned out to be themselves “noisier” than expected. Stars naturally vary in their overall brightness, and the data processing pipeline had to be upgraded to account for that changeability.  But that stellar noise has played a key role in keeping Kepler from seeing some of the small planet transits that the team hoped to detect.

What the Hack event and other parallel efforts are doing is finding ways to, as Jenkins put it, “dig into the noise…to move towards the hairy edge of what our data can show.” The final goal: “To come up with the newest, best washer we can to clean the data and come out with an improved catalog of sparkling planets.”

All the data that will come from the primary Kepler mission, which came to a halt in the summer of 2013, has been collected and analyzed already on a first round. But now the entire pipeline of data is going to be reprocessed with its many improvements so the researchers can dig deeper into data trove. Batalha said they hope to find planets – especially Earth-sized planets – this way.

One of the key techniques to measure the performance of Kepler’s analysis pipeline is to inject fake transit signals into the data and see if it picks up their presence. As Batalha explained, this provides another way to gauge the biases in the system, its efficiency at detecting the planets that it could and should see. “If we inject 100 fake things into the pipeline and find 90 of them, that’s means we’re 90 percent complete.” She said the number would then be worked into the calculations of how many planets are out there, and how many of certain sizes will be caught and missed.

Natalie Batalha is the Chief Scientist for the Kepler mission, while announcing the discovery of Kepler’s first rocky planet, Kepler-10b, in January 2011.

So the Hack Event, which brought together astrophysicists, planetary scientists and computer hakers, was designed to come up with ways to improve Kepler’s completeness (seeing everything there to be seen) and reliability (the likelihood that the signal comes from a planet and not an instrument artifact or non-planetary phenomena in space). By computing both the completeness and reliability, scientists are confident that they can eliminate the observation biases and transform the discovery catalog into a directory of actual planets.

This is one of the key accomplishments of the Kepler mission – making it scientifically possible to say that there are billions and billions of planets out there. What’s more, the increased power of Kepler allowed for the discovery of smaller planets, which are now known to make up the bulk of the exoplanets. And while the number of Earth-sized planets detected in that habitable zone is small – around thirty – that’s still quite a remarkable feat. And remember, Kepler is looking at but one small sliver of the sky.

The twelve exoplanets detected so far closest to Earth in size, lined up with the type of stars they orbit. (NASA Ames)
The twelve exoplanets detected and confirmed so far closest to Earth in size, lined up with the type of stars they orbit. (NASA Ames)

Why does it matter how many exoplanets are out there, how many are rocky and Earth-sized, and how many within habitable zones? The last twenty years of exoplanet hunting, after all, has made clear that there are an essentially infinite number of them in the universe, and untold billions in our galaxy.

The answer lies in the insatiable human desire to know more about the world writ large, and how and why different stars have very different solar systems. But more immediately, there’s the need to know how to best design and operate future planet-finding missions. If the goal is to learn how to characterize exoplanets – identify components of their atmospheres, learn about their weather, their surfaces and maybe their cores – then scientists and engineers need to know a lot more about where planets generally, and some specifically, can be found. And those planet demographics just might open some surprising possibilities.

For instance, Belikov and his Ames colleague Eduardo Bendek have proposed a NASA “small explorer” (under $175 million) mission to launch a 30-to-45 centimeter mirror designed to look for Earth-sized planets only at our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. That’s as small a telescope as you can buy off-the-shelf.

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our Solar System at about 4.37 lightyears away. (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)
Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our Solar System at about 4.37 lightyears away. (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)

Alpha Centauri is a two-star system, and until recently researchers doubted that binaries like it would have orbiting planets. But Kepler and other planet hunters have found that planets are relatively common around binaries, making Alpha Centauri a better target than earlier imagined.

To make it a truly viable project, ACESat – the Alpha Centauri Exoplanet Satellite – requires something else: a scientifically sound estimate of the likelihood that any star in our galaxy would have an Earth-sized planet in its system. Estimates so far have ranged from 10 percent to 50 percent, but Belikov said newer data is encouraging.

“If that number becomes more firm and approaches 50 percent, then an Alpha Centauri-only mission makes a great deal of sense,” he said. “For a small investment, we could have a real possibility of detecting a planet very close by.”

Intriguing, and an insight into how new space missions are designed based on the science already completed. Both NASA and the European Space Agency have plans to launch three significant exoplanet missions within the decade, and the powerful James Webb Space Telescope will launch in 2018 with some known and undoubtedly some not yet understood capabilities for exoplanet discovery. And perhaps most important, NASA is about to study how a potential mission in the 2030s could be designed with the specific purpose of directly imaging exoplanets – the gold standard for the field. All are being designed based on current exoplanet understandings, including the abundance calculations enabled by the Kepler mission’s observations.

Almost 2,000 exoplanets have now been identified, more than half by Kepler. Another 3,000 exoplanet candidates await confirmation. (NASA Ames)
Almost 2,000 exoplanets have now been detected and confirmed, more than half by Kepler. Another 3,000 exoplanet candidates await confirmation. (NASA Ames)

Future posts will dig deeper into a fair number of the subjects raised here, but for now this much is clear: Our galaxy has many billions of planets, and the process of detecting them is robust and on-going, the process of characterizing them has begun, and all the signs point towards the presence of enormous numbers of planets in habitable zones that, in the biggest picture at least, could possibly support life.

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The Exoplanet Era

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Many, and perhaps most stars have solar systems with numerous planets, as in this artist rendering of Kepler 11. (NASA)

Throughout the history of science, moments periodically arrive when new fields of knowledge and discovery just explode.

Cosmology was a kind of dream world until Edwin Hubble established that the universe was expanding, and doing so at an ever-faster rate. A far more vibrant and scientific discipline was born. On a more practical level, it was only three decades ago that rudimentary personal computers were still a novelty, and now computer-controlled, self-driving cars are just on the horizon. And not that long ago, genomics and the mapping of the human genome also went into hyperspeed, and turned the mysterious into the well known.

Most frequently, these bursts of scientific energy and progress are the result of technological innovation, coupled with the far-seeing (and often lonely and initially unsupported) labor and insights of men and women who are simply ahead of the curve.

We are at another of those scientific moments right now, and the subject is exoplanets – the billions (or is it billions of billions?) of planets orbiting stars other than our sun.

The 20th anniversary of the breakthrough discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a sun, 51 Pegasi B, is being celebrated this month with appropriate fanfare. But while exoplanet discovery remains active and planet hunters increasingly skilled and inventive, it is no longer the edgiest frontier.

Now, astronomers, astrophysicists, astrobiologists, planetary scientists, climatologists, heliophysicists and many more are streaming into a field made so enticing, so seemingly fertile by that discovery of the apparent ubiquitiousness of exoplanets.

The new goal: Identifying the most compelling mysteries of some of those distant planets, and gradually but inexorably finding ever-more inventive ways to solve them. This is a thrilling task on its own, but the potential prize makes it into quite an historic quest. Because that prize is the identification of extraterrestrial life.

The presence of life beyond Earth is something that humans have dreamed about forever – with a seemingly intuitive sense that there just had to be other planets out there, and that it made equal sense that some of them supported life. Hollywood was on to this long ago, but now we have the beginning technology and fast-growing knowledge to transform that intuitive sense of life out there into a working science.

The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)
The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

Already the masses and orbits of several thousand exoplanets have been measured. Some planets have been identified as rocky like Earth (as opposed to gaseous like Jupiter.) Some have been found in what the field calls “habitable zones” – regions around distant suns where liquid water could plausibly run on a surface –as it does on Earth and once did on Mars. And some exoplanets have even been determined to have specific compounds – carbon dioxide, water, methane, even oxygen – in their atmospheres.

This and more is what I will be exploring, describing, hopefully bringing to life through an on-going examination of this emerging field of science and the inventive scientists working to understand planets and solar systems many light-years away. Theirs is a daunting task for sure, and progress may be halting. But many scientists are convinced that the goal is entirely within reach – that based on discoveries already made, the essential dynamics and characteristics of very different kinds of planets and solar systems are knowable. Thus the name of this offering: “Many Worlds.”

Artist rendering of early stages of planet formation in the swirl and debris of the disk of a new star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist rendering of early stages of planet formation in the swirl and debris of the disk of a new star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

I was first introduced to, and captivated by, this cosmic search in a class for space journalists taught by scientists including Sara Seager, a dynamic young professor of physics and planetary science at M.I.T., a subsequently-selected MacArthur “genius,” and a pioneer in the field not of discovering exoplanets, but of characterizing them and their atmospheres. And based on her theorizing and the observations of many others, she was convinced that this characterizing would lead to the discovery of very distant extraterrestrtial life, or at least to the discovery of planetary signatures that make the presence of life highly probable. Just this week, she predicted the discovery could take place within a decade.

It was in 2010 that she began her book “Exoplanet Atmospheres” with the statement: “A new era in planetary science is upon us.” I would take it further: A new era has arrived in the human drive to understand the universe and our place in it. Exoplanets and their solar systems are a magnet to young scientists, says Paul Hertz, the head of NASA’s Astrophysics Division. Almost a third of the papers presented at astronomy conferences these days involve exoplanets, he said, and “it’s hard to find scientists in our field under thirty not working on exoplanets.” Go to a major geology conference, or a planetary science meeting, and much the same will be true.

And why not? I think of this moment as akin to the time in the 17th century when early microscopes revealed a universe of life never before seen. So many new questions to ask, so many discoveries to make, so much exciting and ultimately world-changing science ahead.

But the challenge of characterizing exoplanets and some day identifying signs of life does not lend itself to the kind of solitary or small group work that characterized microbiology (think the breakthrough NASA Kepler mission and the large team needed to make it reality and to analyze its results.) Not only does it require costly observatories and telescopes and spectrometers, but it also needs the expertise that scientists from different fields can bring to the task – rather like the effort to map the human genome.

That is the organizing logic of astrobiology – the more general hunt for life elsewhere in our solar system and far beyond, alongside the search for clues into how life may have started on our planet. NASA is eager to encourage that same spirit in the more specific but nonetheless equally sprawling exploration of exoplanets, their atmospheres, their physical makeup, their climates, their suns, their neighborhoods.

The Earth alongside “Super-Earth-” sized exoplanets identified with the Kepler Space Telescope. (NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech)
The Earth alongside “Super-Earth-” sized exoplanets identified with the Kepler Space Telescope. (NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech)

The result was the creation this summer of the the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), a group that will be led by 17 teams of scientists from around the country already working on some aspect of the rich exoplanet opportunity. The group was selected from teams that had applied for grants from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, an arm of its larger NASA Astrobiology Program, as well as other NASA programs in the Planetary Sciences, Astrophysics and Astronomy divisions.

Their mandate is to spark new approaches in the effort to understand exoplanets by identifying areas without consensus in the broader community, and then fostering collaborations here and abroad to address those issues. “Many Worlds” grew out of the NExSS initiative, and will chronicle and explain the efforts of some team members as they explore how exo-plants and exo-creatures might be detected; what can be learned from afar about the surfaces and cores of exoplanets and how both play into the possibility of faraway life; the presence and dynamics of exo-weather, what we can learn about exoplanets from our own planet and solar system, and so much more.

A few of the teams are small, but many are quite large, established and mature – perhaps most especially the Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, and run by Victoria Meadows. Since 2001, the virtual lab has collaborated with researchers representing many disciplines, and from as many as 20 institutions, to understand what factors might best predict whether an exoplanet harbors life, using Earth as a model.

But just as I will be venturing beyond NExSS in my writing about this new era of exploration, so too will NExSS be open to the involvement of other scientists in the field. The original group has been tasked with identifying an agenda of sorts for NASA exoplanet missions and efforts ahead. But its aim is to be inclusive and its conclusions and recommendations will only be as useful and important as the exoplanet community writ large determines them to be.

The Carina Nebula, one of many regions where stars come together and planets later form made out of the surrounding dust, gas and later rock. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team)
The Carina Nebula, one of many regions where stars come together and planets later form made out of the surrounding dust, gas and later rock. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team)

This is a moment pregnant with promise. Systematically investigating exoplanets and their environs is an engine for discovery and a pathway into that largest question of whether or not we are alone in the universe.

Will scientists some day find worlds where donkeys talk and pigs can fly (as at least one “everything is possible” philosopher has posited)? Unlikely.

But just as microscopes and the scientists using them led to the science of microbiology and most of modern medicine, so too are our orbiting observatories, Earth-based telescopes and the scientists who analyze their results are regularly opening up a world of myriad and often surprising marvels.

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